Can Harvard Match MIT at Tech Transfer?


Change is afoot at Harvard University’s technology transfer operation. As Harvard spokesperson B.D. Colen puts it: “There’s no question that there is a new emphasis here on getting out into the world technologies that can benefit the public and that have too often been languishing on the shelf.”

Most recently, a faculty committee studying the commercialization of research at the university briefed incoming Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust on the findings of its work over the past year. The panel, led by Harvard cancer biologist Laurie Glimcher, is now nearing completion on a public report. Insiders say that one of its major recommendations is for Harvard to adopt uniform standards across disciplines that will allow the university to play a larger role in the commercialization of technologies emerging outside the biomedical field. Unlike most universities today, Harvard currently lays automatic claim to inventions only in the areas of medical diagnostics, therapeutics, or public health, or if the discovery has been facilitated by an unusual amount of financial support from the university.

The university panel’s recommendations, which have yet to be formally adopted, are just the latest sign of change. Harvard’s tech-transfer operation has been in full “re-vamp mode” ever since 2005 when Harvard’s then-president Lawrence Summers brought Isaac Kohlberg to Harvard from stints at Tel Aviv University in Israel and New York University.

Summers’ goal in bringing Kohlberg aboard was clear. At the time, Harvard was drawing some $10 million in corporate research funds compared to MIT’s $60 million. With government funding flat, Summers sought closer ties with industry, especially in the biotechnology field.

The fact was, prior to Kohlberg’s arrival, Harvard lagged badly in commercializing—and profiting from—its faculty’s research, despite the university’s nearly unmatched $26 billion endowment and top-flight research efforts. A study by the independent Milken Institute, released in 2006, made the case particularly strikingly in the biotechnology field. According to the study, Harvard ranked first in biotech research as measured by the numbers of papers and citations produced. But, between 2000 and 2004, in a measure taking into account technology licensing, licensing income, and start-up firms created, Harvard ranked 18th in technology transfer—behind institutions like Cornell and the University of Utah.

Kohlberg, who came to Harvard empowered with the title of Senior Associate Provost and Chief Technology Development Officer, began shaking things up right away. He consolidated operations between Harvard Medical School and the so-called Faculty of Arts and Sciences—licensing offices that had a longstanding history of operating as separate fiefdoms. He expanded the staff, packing the newly named “Office of Technology Development” with Ph.Ds who had enough expertise to help spot potentially lucrative faculty innovations early. And, in a well-publicized shift, he went out of his way to familiarize himself with the Harvard faculty’s intellectual property, visiting labs and famously installing an espresso maker in his office to encourage university researchers to come meet with him about their work.

As Kohlberg told the Boston Globe not long after his arrival: “I want people to say five years from now, even three years from now, that Harvard has the most effective technology-transfer program in the country.”

Kohlberg also set up a $10 million fund to incubate some six to eight new Harvard-spawned technologies annually that need extra work to become commercially viable. Harvard’s B.D. Colen says the fund, now halfway to its funding goal, is being conceived of as a philanthropic effort in which investors will not expect a return on their investment but rather will encourage technological development.

To many insiders in the area, it looked a lot like Harvard was taking a page from the playbook of its more applied neighbor down the river. But Lita Nelsen, Director of the Technology Licensing Office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dismisses the idea that Harvard is trying to emulate MIT’s efforts. “I don’t think it’s right to portray Harvard’s efforts as a case of ‘great dome envy,’” she says. “It’s true that we’ve shown that you can do a lot with tech transfer and have had a lot of success. Harvard has a first-class research effort. There’s no reason they can’t have success too.”

So far, however, Harvard’s published numbers don’t seem to indicate that its new focus on tech transfer is bearing fruit. To date there is no discernible change in the number of patents granted to Harvard faculty; if anything, the number is slightly down since Kohlberg’s arrival. Meanwhile, licensing revenues are flat. In 2006, with $20.9 million in licensing income, Harvard still earns less than half of the $48.2 million MIT garners from licenses on its technology. Nonetheless, patent applications at Harvard are up markedly in 2006 from years past.

The big outstanding questions are how successful Harvard’s incubator fund will be, the extent to which Harvard’s new president Faust will follow in Summers’ footsteps to make tech transfer a priority, and whether Kohlberg’s efforts will start to show up in soon-to-be-published FY 2007 numbers.

Stay tuned.

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  • Ron Peterson

    If any one glaring fault surfaces in the operation of technology transfer offices worldwide, it is one of staffing. Manning such offices with scientists and attorneys as they are wont to do is arguably the single worst tack you can take. As a group, these professions or skills are the least receptive to a needed entrepreneurial undertaking and woefully inadequate to deal with a real risk-taker. Find people who have operated well in the business world and use scientists and attorneys on a consulting and as needed basis, don’t let them be gate-keepers for either technology needing an outlet or entrepreneurs/investors seeking the basis for a good new business

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